Herd (2023)

Herd had its world première on Sat 26 Aug at FrightFest, UK home entertainment release (digital/DVD) follows on 23rd October 2023 (High Fliers)

At the beginning of Herd, Jamie Miller (Ellen Adair) and her wife Alex Kanai (Mitzi Akaha) have become divided. After the stillbirth of their daughter, a chill has entered their relationship, and while they have arranged a week-long canoeing adventure, far from their city home, intended to bring them closer together again, Jamie already thinks they are just “postponing the inevitable” – and although she is a country girl born and bred, this will be the nearest she has been in a long time to her estranged father Robert (Corbin Bernsen), a bullying, homophobic bigot who drove her away years ago. 

As Jamie and Alex confront one another with painful truths on their camping trip, an accident will lead to Alex becoming physically hurt too. The couple will limp out onto the road, only to discover that in the few days they have been alone on the water, civilisation as they know it has broken down. An outbreak has created zombie-like hordes of infected ‘heps’ who, while “docile if unthreatened”, respond aggressively to antagonism, and readily pass on their condition with a scratch. In these backwoods, Big John Gruber (Jeremy Holm) has quickly organised local men to build a defensive compound which will accommodate and protect their families, while a semi-professional militia led by the sociopathic Sterling (Timothy V. Murphy) has gone its own way. As these two groups become ever more hostile in their race to secure this small town’s dwindling resources, they are enacting their own version of George Miller’s post-apocalyptic Mad Max 2 (1981). No wonder, amid such machismo, combat and violence, that the heps are so restless and riled – but all this division might paradoxically be giving Jamie perspective on what she has with Alex that is worth keeping after all.

If Steven Pierce’s feature, co-written with James Allerdyce, is to be classed as a zombie film, then it falls very much into the model of sociopolitical allegory favoured by George A. Romero – and indeed comes closest to his Day of the Dead (1985) and Survival of the Dead (2009). For it is the polarisations of contemporary America that are this film’s real target, with the heps barely featuring at all, and serving largely to reflect and amplify the anxieties and aggressions of the uninfected who are, for the most part, the film’s real monsters. The rural district where most of the film takes place is deep in MAGA land – a region whose menfolk are god-fearing, gun-toting rednecks, shallow thinking and trigger happy to a T, as they cosplay fascism with real bullets, make life-or-death decisions about a rapidly spreading disease that they fatally misunderstand, and pass down their toxic masculinity to the next generation. 

Robert may be dead, but the pernicious patriarchy that he embodied lives on in his various male acolytes – who expressly regard him as a dad to them. Only Big John shows open-mindedness, consideration and respect, preferring to ask questions where the men under him would just shoot first – but his exceptional qualities make him unlikely to last long in an environment that eschews basic medical science and rewards brute force. There is little place for an urban gay couple here, and soon Jamie and Alex, like Dorothy Gale trapped in Oz, “just want to go home.” Yet ironically, Jamie is home, and if she is ever to be reconciled with Alex, she must also work through her conflicted feelings about her late father whose bad qualities she experienced at first hand, but whose better side she is now discovering through others.

With a title which combines associations with America’s rural ranch lands, with an easily manipulated populace, and with a kind of disease immunity, Herd is a portrait of a society at vicious odds with itself, and primed to explode, as though the old west, with its territorial disputes and shootouts, had never ended. Yet in its central couple it offers an alternative model, and the possibility of healing, both personal and national.

strap: Steven Pierce’s outbreak horror shows America’s illiberal heartland in rapid, self-inflicted collapse during a misunderstood pandemic

© Anton Bitel